“There,” Tau said, pointing at a flickering light in the distance. “Do you see it?” The light was bright against the evening’s darkness, but he was never sure how far Jabari could see.
“I see it,” Jabari said. “They’re burning Daba.”
Jabari picked up the pace and Tau, lungs burning, did his best to keep up. He tried not to think about what they’d find when they got to there. He’d trained his whole life with his father, and his father was the best fighter in the fief, but Tau had never been in a real battle.
“Swords out!” Jabari ordered as they came over a hill. Tau pulled his weapon free, looked down on the hamlet, and froze.
Daba sat on a plateau that had natural borders. Four hundred strides in front of Tau the mountain continued clawing its way to the clouds. On his right, twice as far away, was the hamlet’s central square and, beyond it, the plateau ended in a series of steep but scalable cliffs that faced the valley. On Tau’s left were the raiders. They had come from the paths leading to Daba’s growing fields and they had burned half the hamlet already.
The flaxen roofs of the larger houses were on fire and, in the night’s dark, the flames silhouetted the fleeing men, women, and children of Daba. The Ihagu, Aren’s men, were doing their best to defend the villagers, but they were outnumbered and fighting a series of running skirmishes between Daba’s tightly packed homes and storage barns. They were retreating, but there was nowhere to go. The hedeni were herding the Ihagu and villagers to the cliffs.
Tau didn’t know what he’d expected, but this wasn’t it. The hedeni, filthy and scarred by the Goddess’ Curse, threw themselves at the Ihagu. They held either bone spears or bone-and-bronze hatchets, which they used to chop at the Chosen like woodcutters. They didn’t use fighting stances Tau could recognize and their attacks followed no rhythm or sequence. Worst of all, the Ihagu had been reduced to fighting as savagely as the hedeni. Both sides stabbing at each other and, every so often, someone would fall back, dead, wounded, or maimed.
“What is this?” Tau asked, his voice too low for Jabari to hear.
“There,” Jabari shouted, running down, not waiting to see if Tau would follow.
Tau tracked Jabari’s path and saw three hedeni harrying a woman and child. Jabari yelled a battle cry. Tau, having trouble remembering why he’d come, lifted his sword, shouted as loud as he could, following the Petty-Noble into battle.
When Tau reached the flats, Jabari had already engaged two hedeni. The savages had serrated spears and were trying to circle to his sides. Jabari stood between them and the Lessers.
Tau went for the third savage, arcing his sword in a blow meant to decapitate, but the wretch brought up a hatchet, blocking his strike. The raider, a mass of dirty hair and mud-caked skin, surged forward, swinging their weapon low, aiming for his thigh.
Tau leapt back, fear lending him speed. The hatchet’s blade hissed past and Tau attacked, desperate to shift the battle’s momentum. He lunged, aiming for the heart and, as he’d been taught, he kept his eye on the target, ready to react when they dodged. The collision, then, was a surprise. Tau’s blade plunged from tip to hilt, in and through his opponent’s chest. The savage had not dodged, had made no move to avoid the sword’s point at all.
Tau didn’t understand. The lunge had been obvious. It wasn’t a serious killing blow. Anyone with decent training could have avoided it.
Tau looked up and into the face of the person he’d stabbed. The eyes were big and wide, staring off at something in the distance. The mouth, full-lipped, formed a gentle ‘o’ and the raider’s hair, dreaded by lack of care, hung down her face. Tau pulled back in revulsion, but his blade wouldn’t come free. The woman, or girl, he couldn’t tell, cried out as the bronze ripped her insides.
She reached for Tau, perhaps to hold him close, hoping to halt the blade’s bitter exit. Her fingers, bloody already, touched his face. She tried to speak, lips flecked with spittle, but her life had run its course and she sighed, as if with relief, before the weight of her lifeless body pulled Tau to the ground.
“Tau!” Jabari’s voice sounded far away. “Tau, are you hurt?”
“No… I hurt her, I think,” Tau heard himself say.
“Get up. More are coming. We have to make it to the rest of the Ihagu.”
“Is that your blood?” asked Jabari.
Jabari, the woman, and child were staring at him. The two hedeni that had faced Jabari, both men, were dead.
“It’s not me,” Tau told them. “Not me.”
“We have to go,” said Jabari.
Tau nodded, pulled his blade free from the body with a squelch, took a step, doubled over and retched. Nothing came up. He retched again, his stomach heaving when he forced himself upright. The child was staring at him. He wiped his mouth on his gambeson. “Fine,” he said. “I’m fine.”
Jabari looked Tau over. “We have to go,” he said, moving.
Tau followed. The woman he’d killed lay in the mud like a broken doll. He’d never killed someone. He was shaking. He’d never—
“Follow me,” said Jabari as the four of them weaved between huts and buildings, doing their best to avoid the fighting all around them.
Jabari was heading towards the barricade that the Ihagu were setting up at the edge of the hamlet’s central square. They had used overturned wagons, tables, even broken down doors to block the paths that led to the square. They were making a stand. They wouldn’t last long. There were too many Xiddeen.
“In here!” Jabari shoved the woman, who had picked up and was carrying the child, through the open door of a hut. Jabari dashed in after her and Tau followed. The hut was far larger than the one Tau shared with his father. It had four rooms that shot off the main living area. Tau reasoned it must belong to a High-Harvester. Maybe even Berko, he thought as the first hedena warrior burst through the doorway.
The man, hatchet out, made for Jabari. He hadn’t seen Tau. Tau sliced at the man’s side, chopping into his arm. The hedena, larger than Tau, hollered and stumbled into the nearest wall. Jabari ran him through.
The next hedena through the door had a spear. It was a woman. Tau knew the hedeni fought men alongside women. He knew it like he knew he had ten toes, but seeing a second female fighter gave him pause.
He should attack. He didn’t. She thrust her spear at him. It would have taken him in the throat if Jabari hadn’t lashed out, knocking it out of her hands.
The hedena woman drew a dagger from her belt. She wore no armor. The hedeni never did. Instead, she had on an earth-toned wrap that covered her breasts and looped round her back, where it dove into loose and flowing pants. She was sandaled and her hands were bangled, the golden metal bouncing on her slim wrists as she flicked her dagger at Jabari.
Jabari danced back. She came forward and Tau knew this was his chance. Jabari had coaxed her forward and Tau was behind her. He just had to stab her. He just had to end her life.
On weak knees, Tau stepped forward and swung his sword as hard as he could. The flat of the blade hammered into the side of the hedena’s head, knocking her down.
Jabari kicked the dagger from her hand and leapt on her. He pressed his sword to her neck. “You speak Empiric?” he snarled. “How many ships did you land on our shores? How many raiders?” He pressed the point of his sword into her neck, drawing blood. “Who leads them?”
She smiled, spat in his face, closed her eyes and began to spasm. Her skin, scarred from the Curse, bubbled and boiled. Blood erupted from her nose, ears, mouth, and eyes, and she began to scream and scream and scream. Then, like a candle blown, her life was gone, snuffed out.
The child in the Lesser woman’s arms was crying and the Lesser had turned away. Jabari had scurried away from the hedena when she began to spasm. He was still on his ass, facing the dead savage.
He turned to Tau, mouth open, brow furrowed. “Demon-death,” he said. “Your father told us it’s what they do when captured. I didn’t believe it. I didn’t believe anyone would really do it.”
Tau could think of nothing worth saying.
Jabari, shaken up, wiped the savage’s spit from his face and stood. “We have to keep moving.”
He stumbled away, using the wall for support. Tau, along with the woman and child, followed him through the other rooms of the hut. Jabari bashed out a shuttered window at the back of the building and they crawled out of it, emerging in the middle of a square of tightly packed homes.
In front of them was a storage barn and they were at least a hundred strides from the Ihagu’s barricade. Jabari tried the barn’s door. They had not been seen and could go through the long building. With luck, they’d come out a quick run from the barricade and the rest of their people. Jabari smashed the lock off the door and went in.
The storage barn was large, but its interior was tight, crammed with shelves, most empty. That was bad. It was almost Harvest, only the Southern Tear had ground healthy enough for good growing, and the Grow season had been the worst in many cycles. If this storehouse was any indication, The Rend would have trouble feeding its people.
As they slunk through, Tau began to have trouble breathing.
“What are you doing?” Jabari asked.
Tau couldn’t stop panting. He felt dizzy. “Too close,” he said about the shelves and walls.
Tau squeezed his eyes shut. It didn’t help much and he couldn’t get enough air. He’d come to a stop and didn’t think he’d be able to keep going, when a cool hand slipped into his.
“It’s just a few more steps,” the Lesser woman told him. “Keep your eyes closed. I’ll guide you.”
Tau nodded and stumbled after her.
“Ready?” asked Jabari.
Tau, still nauseous and desperate to get out of the barn, opened an eye. They had walked the length of the storehouse and were at its front doors.
“If the Goddess wills,” Jabari said, “we’ll have a clear run for the barricade. We make it there and we’re safe.”
Tau wasn’t sure anywhere in Daba could be called safe. He’d seen how many hedeni were out there. Either way, the only thing that mattered was getting out of the storage barn. It felt like the whole building was collapsing in on him.
“Ready?” Jabari asked again.
The Lesser, eyes wide, nodded. Tau groaned his assent.
“Go!” Jabari yelled, kicking the door open.
Tau pitched through the doorway, fixated on being free of the barn, and ran into a startled hedena. He bowled the man over and Jabari stabbed the downed savage. There were four, maybe five other raiders, but they were fighting Ihagu. Jabari joined the fight and Tau, head spinning, grabbed the woman’s hand, pulling her along.
He saw the barricade, just ahead, and made for it. She was slowing him and a voice in his head shouted for him to leave her and the child behind. Without realizing it, he let his hand slip loose in hers. He was letting go.
Gritting his teeth, he did his best to tamp down his fear and, tightening his grip on the woman’s hand, he pulled her after him. The men behind the barricade saw him coming and Tau thought he recognized one of them, but the blood, caked on the man’s face, made it hard to tell.
The bloody-faced man shoved aside a pile of overturned chairs, making a climbable path for Tau and his two charges. Tau helped the woman and child clamber up the ramshackle wall.
“You now,” the bloody-faced Ihagu yelled, reaching for him.
“Tendaji?” Tau said.
“Tau?” said Tendaji. “What are you doing here?”
“Not sure,” Tau told the man.
“Get up here.”
“Can’t. Jabari is still out there.” Tau turned and, with loosening bowels, he ran back to the fighting.
“Jabari?” The shock in Tendaji’s voice spoke volumes.
Tau didn’t run far. Jabari and the Ihagu were coming to him. Jabari was bleeding through the arm of his gambeson and the other warriors carried one of their own.
“I’m well,” said Jabari, waving off Tau’s concern. “Let’s get behind the barricade.”
Tau helped carry the wounded Ihagu and they ran for the barricade.
“Nkosi!” Tendaji said, mouth dropping open. Tau had warned him, but seeing Jabari in the middle of a raid must have been too much for the Ihagu soldier to accept without shock.
Tendaji helped them climb the barricade and, once the last man was over, they shifted the blocking rubble back in place.
Behind the barricade, Tau hoped to feel safe. He didn’t. Most of the Ihagu were injured, the ones fighting at the contested sections were being overwhelmed, and the townspeople were frantic.
Looking beyond the barricade, Tau saw that the hedeni were being reinforced. Savages were pouring down from the paths and into the flats. Tau looked at Jabari. Jabari had seen them too and, for once, the optimistic second son looked scared.
“Get back, Nkosi,” Tendaji cautioned. “They’re coming.”
“Let them,” Jabari said, stepping up to the barricade. Tendaji looked like he would say more. Instead, he shifted, making room.
Tau stepped up on Jabari’s other side. “For The Rend,” he said with more conviction than he felt.
“For the Goddess,” intoned Jabari and Tendaji together. The three men hefted their weapons. The barricade wouldn’t hold and they wouldn’t last, not against the number of hedeni coming at them, but they’d give a good accounting of themselves.Get the Book or Continue to Part 8